- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Some things remain the same as boy wizard Harry Potter, again embodied by Daniel Radcliffe, approaches a third year at Hogwarts Academy in the problematic movie version of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

The precocious orphan must liberate himself yet again from incorrigibly hostile relatives, the Dursleys, this time by inflating and levitating a noxious auntie named Marge. While each Potter tale must commence with a Dursley breakout, this escape prelude lacks the bonus of its predecessor, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”: the introduction of a distinctive and fascinating new character, the diminutive house elf Dobby.

Ostensibly, the prison that matters in this third installment of the Potter series is the dreaded but unseen Azkaban. An inmate called Sirius Black has escaped as the new school term begins; an apprehensive consensus in the society of wizards holds that he intends to harm Harry Potter. Supposedly, Sirius was implicated in the betrayal and murder of Harry’s parents years earlier.

But as a practical matter, Sirius, eventually impersonated by Gary Oldman, doesn’t surface as a character until the concluding episodes. Rather a bad-faith menace, he’s trumped throughout the picture by dark and tendrilly figures called Dementors, which resemble the Ringwraiths in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and guard the walls of Azkaban.

Rushed to Hogwarts in order to ensnare the fugitive, they come close to suffocating Harry during a search of his train compartment, which also shelters his Hogwarts pal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), their estimable classmate Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and a cloaked stranger, who saves Harry from premature death. This timely defender then emerges as a sympathetic new faculty member, a surprisingly wistful opportunity for David Thewlis.

There’s an imposing new creature on the school grounds: a flying equine with the head and wingspan of an eagle called Buckbeak, tended by the hirsute Hagrid of Robbie Coltrane. Harry gets a test ride that proves the most satisfying lyrical interlude in the movie.

Quite a few familiar figures are underemployed: Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and Alan Rickman among the faculty and Tom Felton as the nasty tyrant-in-training Malfoy. While hoping in vain for a Dobby encore, I also had plenty of time to miss Jason Isaacs as Malfoy’s domineering dad and Kenneth Branagh as the celebrity phony on the faculty. Emma Thompson isn’t nearly as much fun as her ex-husband’s would-be silly replacement.

The look of Hogwarts itself is altered in ways that harmonize with the deceits and miscalculations that weaken “Azkaban.” A new director, Alfonso Cuaron, seems to prefer a diminished color palette along with a steeper topography. It’s almost as if the Dementors were busy sucking life out of the production when not on camera. The whimsical and adventurous Potter ingredients were in optimum balance during “Chamber of Secrets.” Now they’ve shifted in a dank, brooding, absent-minded way that revives the hit-and-miss consistency of “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Even the quidditch game, which finally looked dynamic and streamlined in the second movie, is now in fresh disrepair. It’s staged in a rainstorm, up above the clouds with Dementors as gratuitous obstacles. The perspective of mere spectators seems to have been forgotten.

In a similar respect, “Prisoner of Azkaban” is a Harry Potter spectacle with its resources and preoccupations obscured in banks of thematic foul weather.

**1/2

TITLE: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

RATING: PG (Sustained ominous atmosphere; occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Produced by David Heyman, Chris Columbus and Mark Radcliffe. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cinematography by Michael Seresin. Production design by Stuart Craig. Costume design by Jany Temime. Creature and makeup effects by Nick Dudman. Visual effects supervisors: Roger Guyett and Tim Burke. Special effects supervisors: John Richardson and Steve Hamilton. Music by John Williams.

RUNNING TIME: 142 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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